Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Say Ramen, Somebody!
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Say Ramen, Somebody!

The world lost a food pioneer on January 5. Momofuku Ando, 97, the self-professed “Noodle King,” was the man who invented instant ramen — the low budget dining delicacy of college students everywhere.

Long before sushi, there was another and more profound Japanese food invasion in the United States. Since the mid-1970s, instant ramen has been bringing Asian culinary subtlety (OK, so it’s not exactly subtle) to young American palates for mere pennies a bowl.

Ramen may be an ubiquitous presence in US grocery stores today, but it was only introduced in America in 1972. It took several years and some marketing savvy — the inexpensive packages of fried and dried, boil and serve noodles didn’t catch on until they were sold in the soup aisle in the supermarket — before ramen caught on as a dorm room staple. Although ramen is a relatively young food in America, it has a long and distinguished history in Asia.

According to the “Book of Ramen” (the site includes a history and recipes), ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji characters for “lau mein” (lo mein), the boiled noodle dish invented by Chinese centuries ago and imported into Japan.

Types of noodles native to Japan include soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (a thicker style of noodle served in fish-based stock), but ramen is far and away the best-known Japanese noodle export today. In Yokohama, the official Ramen Museum even re-creates the first recorded instance in the 17th century of a samurai, Mito Komon, eating a bowl of ramen.

Today, ramen shops are everywhere in Japan. The terrific 1986 film by director Juzo Itami, “Tampopo,” celebrated the culture of the ramen shop, with their unique secret soup stocks and bar-like ambience.

I recall when I was a child in Japan, ramen shops all had delivery boys who would skitter through the alleyways and crowded streets of Tokyo, precariously — and amazingly — balancing a huge tray of steaming ramen bowls to their destination. It’s an image that’s an indelible reminder of Japan for me.

One of the chains of ramen shops in Tokyo, Oshima Ramen, has even gone international, opening franchises in the US, including one in Denver, although it’s operated with a staff of mostly imported Thai cooks. The taste is wonderful, and very familiar (the real stuff is actually much much better than the instant ramen from the supermarket), but the cost alas is high — Tokyo prices for a bowl of ramen topped off with some char-shu pork. The owner justifies the price by explaining he imports Japanese flour to make the noodles fresh in the restaurant (they do taste pretty damned good).

The taste might be far inferior, but the cheap price (you can often still find it for 20 cents a package or even less on sale) of the store-bought stuff is what makes instant ramen such a hit.

The world can thank Momofuku Ando for instant ramen.

The founder of Nissin, the makers of Top Ramen and the also ubiquitous Cup-o-Noodles brand of instant noodles in its own styrofoam cup, Ando invented chicken-flavored instant ramen in 1958. He reportedly got the idea for the product in the post-war years, when he witnessed long lines of hungry Japanese waiting to pay top dollar for fresh hot ramen meals from the black market.

In creating the dried noodles and powdered soup stock to feed his own country’s hungry, Ando made a product would feed the world.

I grew up with Nissin’s Top Ramen (it was named the silly “Oodles of Noodles” for the first couple of years stateside) as well as brands such as Maruchan and Sapporo Ichiban (Sapporo was one of the first places in Japan to embrace Chinese lo mein, and thinks of ramen as one of its own local specialties).

These days ramen is commonplace in American supermarkets, but if you visit a Japanese grocery, you can find a bewildering array of other instant noodle dishes, from exotic kinds of udon to yakisoba, a pan-fried style of ramen, and lots of variations on ramen that include spicy Korean flavors.

Many are sold in their own styrofoam bowls, borrowing yet again from Ando’s ingenuity. Ando reportedly had the idea for Cup-o-Noodles when he was visiting the US and saw someone pour his ramen into a cup to eat with a fork. The concept took the convenience of instant ramen to new heights, and reduced cooking time from several minutes down to almost nothing.

The many recipes available for ramen on the Internet boast of its healthful qualities, but not being a nutritionist, I can’t imagine it’s that healthful to eat nothing but ramen. Maybe your body can get away with it in college, but mine won’t today. There’s too much fat and salt, even if I do occasionally like the flavor.

There are plenty of flavor to choose from, too. Nissin makes many varieties to suit its many markets from Asia to Europe and the US. They’re spicier in some countries than others. The US gets the most bland spices, although the flavors include Cajun Chicken, Chili, Mushroom, Picante Beef and the original “Oriental.”

The flavor’s enough to keep instant ramen popular here in the US.

My stepson Jared, who’s now 21 years old, used to have instant ramen for breakfast, lunch, dinner and latenight snack, depending on the availability of other food. He experimented by adding hot sauce, and also made double batches from time to time. There was always a pot and a bowl and a pair of chopsticks in the sink — a sure sign of a ramen fanatic!

I’m sure even without the company’s founder, Nissin will do well for many years to come with its quick, easy and cheap version of ramen, even if more noodle shops open in the US to serve the real thing.